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FeatureLiving Well


Tim Biles shares an ode to Matilda - the timber vessel that stole his heart.

Oct 11, 2022

Words: Tim Biles
Images: Tim Biles

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Right in that moment of autumnal calm, while looking out across the lake shimmering in early evening golden light, a boat gently passed.

Blood-red sails, gaff-rigged, dog and the skipper at the tiller.

His straw hat was slightly cocked and he looked at peace with the world.

That is when I knew I belonged here. But, I needed a boat like Matilda and company like this man with his straw hat.

There is a sound to old timber sailboats as they are driven by the wind. Creaking spars, straining halyards and the slap of water on timber.

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Andy Henderson was a Scot. Broad of accent, ginger hair, wiry and a master of his craft.

Old timber boats are a love affair. Costly beyond reason, shapely in a way that is alluring and a joy to be around.

I bought a boat like Matilda. A double-ender.

It took a couple of years to find her after losing a bid on another vessel. The local real estate agent invited me to a meeting in the backroom of the Post Office, where I was advised by Old Dave Bull that for a ‘finder’s fee’ of $300, he would let me know where I could locate a sister to Andy’s Matilda.

I acquiesced and spent the kids' school fees buying the boat, then made a visit to Andy.

In his delightful Scottish burr, he gave me the thumbs-up of approval and offered to put in a centre case and bowsprit and fit a boom.

Weeks later, Andy rang and suggested I pop over to Bury’s Slipway on Bancroft Bay, East Gippsland.

I knew of Peter Bury but had never met him. Like peas in a pod, Peter and Andy met me in a sprawling ‘kids’ playground’ of old boats – seemingly chaotic arrangements of tools and boat bits all housed in a cathedral-like shed made of bush poles. Paradise!

Peter greeted me saying it was smoko time and ‘Would I like a cuppa?’ He was short, wiry like Andy, with a shock of white hair, a wispy white beard and twinkling blue eyes that searched out romance whether it be a wooden boat or something else.

A mug was produced, the interior of which was brown with the years of accumulated tannins and then given an invitation to help myself from the pot. How could I refuse?!

Over the course of smoko, Peter and Andy, scratching their ragged beards, explained how the new rig – consisting of a varnished bowsprit, mast, boom and centre case – had been installed. With quiet pride, the curved shape of the bowsprit was described by Peter, its curvaceous lines as I had hoped it would be.

During this process of renewal, I had serendipitously found blood-red sails for sale in the Trading Post.

“They’re a wee bit big,” says Andy, “but I’ve wrapped them around the boom and they’ll be fine.”

With smoko done, the boat was launched down the sliprails,cleaving the waters with a gentle bow wave, until she floated gracefully like a coracle – a small draft and wide beam for the shallow conditions of the Gippsland Lake system.

I slowly learnt to sail this boat, not with the mastery of Andy guiding Matilda, but good enough to only sink once. There is a sound to old timber sailboats as they are driven by the wind. Creaking spars, straining halyards and the slap of water on timber. It’s different from a plastic boat.

It’s not just speed.

Mostly though it’s about the characters.

I sail past Bury’s Slip on a regular basis, remembering Andy, who has since passed on, and looking for a glimpse of Peter who I last saw up the mast of his boat, varnishing it in a bosun's chair, nut brown and seemingly stark naked.

A reminder of why I know I belong here.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 24

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